In my family, while growing up, Labor Day was one of our most looked-forward-to holidays every year. An annual rite of passage, we would be glued to the screen to watch the Jerry Lewis Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy.
It is perhaps poignant to know that my first introduction to this multi-talented powerhouse was through his humanitarian efforts. After all, this was Jerry Lewis, half of the comedy duo Martin & Lewis, actor, author, musician, and entrepreneur, who among his other businesses created the first-ever family-friendly chain of movie theaters.
While I absolutely adored him in his movies like The Nutty Professor, The Bellboy, and (my personal favorite) Cinderfella, it was during his duties as a presenter for the annual MDA telethon that I became transfixed and found the way to create my first business.
At the ripe old age of 8 years old, I gathered friends together with an impassioned plea. I explained to them that there were people who needed our help, and asked them to come to my house, to hear more. Some of them knew all about Jerry Lewis and his telethon. Some hadn’t heard, but to a man, they all came.
Once everyone was assembled, I devised a plan. We would canvas our neighborhood, knock on doors, and ask the people who answered to gather whatever spare change they had. We wouldn’t ask for much, we just wanted pennies, nickels, dimes, whatever was in the couch cushions. We figured that with all of us out asking for a day, we’d be able to gather something.
Why did a group of 8-year-olds think we could make a difference? Because Jerry Lewis, Ed McMahon, and all the other celebrities told us we could. They explained to us that everyone could make a difference — that every little bit mattered. And those little bits added together are what changes the world.
At the end of the day, we all came together with our individual collections and tallied it up. We’d gathered over $800 in spare change from the people in our neighborhood.
It was an amazing feeling when 15 minutes later I was on-air talking to Jerry Lewis himself. As we spoke, he personally thanked me and “the kids from Old Bridge, NJ” who’d been out all day collecting for MDA. When we saw our $800 get ceremoniously added to the day’s telethon total, we all cheered, and you could hear it on the TV.
One of my friends remembers that he winked at us before moving on to the next caller, and I’m inclined to believe her. He was like that.
7 years later, I found myself on a cruise ship with Mr. Lewis. He was the headliner for the cruise, and was supposed to be there for only one night and then leave. Unfortunately, on the first night of the cruise, we hit a terrible storm and we had to stay at sea for days.
Rather than retreat to his room and stay there ordering room service, Mr. Lewis was out among the crowd, entertaining people and keeping the mood light.
I had the chance to talk with him then and introduced myself. I told him about my telethon story, and he graciously told me he’d remembered it. (Whether he actually did, I have no idea, but he made me believe so, and that was more than enough for me.)
The highlight of that trip was not meeting him in person, however, but watching him perform live, night after night, even in those terrible conditions. The seas were beyond Gilligan’s Island levels of rough, and yet he took the stage to entertain everyone anyway. At one point he actually slid off the stage and yet he came right back out with a bucket that he said was “in case of emergency” — and the whole crowd laughed, as we were all in on the joke.
The Jerry Lewis I remember was kind, generous, giving, and quick-witted.
To his dying day, he was hoping to find a cure for Muscular Dystrophy, and he was never afraid of personal failure or looking bad.
As I look out over the beautiful town of Las Vegas that Mr. Lewis and I both have been fortunate to call home, I notice that today the lights seem a bit dimmer, the sounds a bit quieter, and the laughter more hollow.
Among his many catchphrases, Mr. Lewis had a ritual that he would complete at the end of every telethon. As the phones were shut down at the end of another successful weekend, the spotlight would fall on him, and he would start to sing:
When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of a storm
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark
Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone
Of all the lessons he taught me as a young entrepreneur, this was perhaps the most important–remaining positive throughout whatever life throws at you gives you the strength to live it.
He was a beautiful man, and he will be missed.
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